Tangled up in the bittersweet aftermath of family and finality, I am well aware that my Friday posts have been set aside, relegated to the back burner of life. I feel tethered to putting pen to paper on a weekly basis, not simply because it is good practice, but also because my mother egged me on. Rommy started checking the blog early Thursday evenings, in the hopes that there was something new to read, a recipe to peruse, a story I hadn’t yet relayed. Little did she know I was busy unearthing old photographs, scratching my head, desperately trying to string together a sentence. My mother was always curious- what was happening in the food world, what was the latest?
The past few months have been a tear-stained blur, but in looking back through my notes, I realize I totally missed a faux-food holiday Rommy would have adored; National Jell-O Week. More critically, the first day of the jiggly holiday fell on Rommy’s birthday, February 8th. I would be totally remiss in not mentioning my mother’s connection to gelatin and also my own.
The jello of my youth was neon colored, eaten with a spoon from individual Pyrex dishes. Occasionally it was topped with a generous swirl of Reddi-wip but generally it was just a dish full of quivering color, punctuated with imitation fruit flavor and sugar overkill. Jessie generally served up dishes of Jello as a lightning quick dessert fix to accompany cookie sheets full of cookies. Often, Jessie couldn’t leave well enough alone- armed with a rotary hand held beater, she would whip the still-liquid Jello within an inch of its life, creating an aerated, chiffon-y bowl of Jello fluff. It was surprisingly delicious, slightly less jiggly and tempered the brazen color of the dessert, softening it into more of a pastel shade.
Rommy’s association with Jello was more akin to the Ladies’ Luncheons hosted by her mother Dorothy. Mama Dorothy loved to entertain, and based on photographs and a box of intricate place cards unearthed in Rommy’s breakfront, it appears the dining room was a very busy place. A table covered in monogrammed linens, set with luncheon size silver and plates, often featured an abundant centerpiece of fruit suspended in Jello. Apparently individual, shimmering Jello molds set at each place were also quite popular. Dorothy and the women of her generation embraced aspics and gelatin salads. I know this, because I have inherited the gelatin molds that once housed celery jello spiked with ribbons of cucumber and flecks of carrot. I also sublet valuable kitchen shelf space to a deeply fluted Jello mold, (complete with a cover) used specifically for Rommy‘s legendary, holiday Jello offerings. There’s a version that features cranberries for Thanksgiving, and there’s a gelatin salad that is spiked with beets and horseradish to be served at Passover. The one that we associate with Rommy and the deeply fluted mold (that once belonged to Dorothy) is composed of wild blueberries and requires a generous helping of sour cream. Exactly how much sour cream and how many boxes of Jello? That’s a very fair question.
As my siblings and I continue to empty out my mother’s apartment, we wade knee deep through files. Many of the sage green hanging files are filled with recipes, designated to various holidays. Jello plays a prominent role in both the Thanksgiving and the Passover files, and with each re-writing of the recipe is just the slightest tweak of the ingredients. Sometimes there are very specific weights and measures, often times it might just indicate, “one container of sour cream, two boxes of jello.” We have learned through trial and error that not every container of sour cream, nor box of jello is created equally and have had to adjust accordingly. Prior to February, we would simply call my mother on the phone and get the particulars. Not only the recipe particulars, but a good dialogue with up-to-the-minute details of nothing in particular. Those breezy conversations are what I miss most these days.
My mother would be pleased to know however, that her Jello-lore is safely ensconced in several files, in more than one home. As of this writing, Blondilocks speaks fluent J-e-l-l-o and is well versed in deciphering all of the details. We are unafraid when a handwritten recipe is vague in specifying the exact size container of sour cream because my mother, in Jello, as in life, taught us well.
In our contemporary, “if it doesn’t give you joy” culture, it would be frowned upon to own not one, but two sets of Magic Cake pans. I am not ashamed to admit that there are two such checkerboard cake pans, three pans per set, taking up residence in one of my kitchen cabinets.
The older of the two sets belonged to my mother’s mother, Mama Dorothy, a world traveler, gifted pianist, consummate hostess. Dorothy’s checkerboard cake pans are imprinted with the brand name Ekco followed by the no-nonsense adage,“Patent Applied For.” Magic Cake pans added drama to house parties hosted in the 1940s. Measuring 8½” in diameter, the pans are ever-so-slightly indented, and include two dividing ring inserts that fit snugly within the pans. The dividing rings prevent the chocolate and vanilla cake batters from touching.
The second set of pans were manufactured by the Bake King Corporation and belonged to my Grandmother Minnie. Minnie was a businesswoman, good with figures, and known for hosting legendary Sunday dinners. The Bake King pans are light weight, measuring 9” in diameter, with smooth interiors, lacking indentations, and include a one-piece dividing ring insert to keep renegade batters from colliding.
I have used both sets of pans with great success, and despite promises to scale back my kitchen inventory, it seems foolish to discard cake pans that clearly give me joy. There are certain occasions that demand 8½” cake festivities and others that call for 9” magic cakes. It is also worth noting that despite their age, the well-crafted, sturdy aluminum pans continue to perform, requiring little more than a liberal buttering, a dusting of flour, and a recipe of two-toned cake batter.
Checkerboard cakes were celebratory desserts, often reserved for birthdays. They were predictably frosted in chocolate and after wishes had been made and candles extinguished, every slice was dotted with just the tiniest droplet of melted candle wax. I tended to eat my slice alternating between forkfuls of chocolate squares, then vanilla, saving the thick layer of frosting that held it all together for the end.
Just this week, a recent foray into a long forgotten drawer unearthed a number of boxes of birthday candles, some recently purchased, others purchased long ago. Something about those candles conjured images of crepe paper streamers and candy corsages, balloons stuck to the wall by static electricity, party favors, and honeycomb centerpieces crafted by Dennison. My mother, very much like her mother, and my father’s mother, knew how to throw a party, how to make you feel extraordinarily special. They were crafty and clever, with vision, imagination, and dining room drawers well stocked with birthday candles,
Making the very first slice into a cake because it was your birthday was traditional at our dining room table. The cake knife was weighty, long handled, most often engraved with initials, names or a date. Cutting into a cake and expecting a monotone slice, only to find a checkerboard of chocolate and vanilla squares was surprising and thrilling. With each slice you were reminded you were in the midst of the most wonderful party.
Do I need two sets of Magic Cake pans? Probably not. (You could make the same case for the stack of Pyrex and Corning and ceramic pie plates nested precariously alongside the cake pans.) Are the checkerboard cake pans an integral part of my life? Do they spark joy? The truth is, every time I reach into that over-crowded cabinet stacked high with Ekco-ware and Bake-King, and I set the pans on the counter, it feels like a party in the making. I suspect my grandmothers and my mother would insist we make enough room in our lives for that kind of spark.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm